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7.28 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who procured the debate, for allowing me to participate. I had not been aware that it was to take place until I saw it on the Order Paper, but I am now delighted to be able to participate.

I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Cotswold Canals Trust, in common with the hon. Member for Stroud. I am very pleased to be associated with that organisation. We are talking about restoring the canal link that linked the Severn to the Thames. A Bill was put through Parliament as long ago as 1783 to allow construction to begin to take place. In 1787, a 3,817 yd tunnel was built. To construct such a long tunnel—probably the longest that had ever been built in the world at that time—was no mean engineering feat. It remains the third longest canal tunnel in the United Kingdom today.

The hon. Gentleman told us that the link from the Thames to the Severn is in two parts—the Stroudwater canal, which leads up to the tunnel, with the Thames and Severn canal on the other side. The hon. Gentleman's part of the canal, the Stroudwater canal, is a much smaller project to complete. The feasibility study undertaken by Gloucestershire county council in 1996 estimated that that part of the restoration would cost about £10 million. Apart from the road links—the M5 and the A38 are significant problems that need to be overcome—the hon. Gentleman's part of the canal is largely in the same ownership.

The part that is covered by my constituency represents a much bigger engineering project. I have already mentioned that the tunnel is collapsing in places. The substrata of the canal have been a problem ever since the 1780s when the canal was opened. Cotswold limestone is porous and needs to be lined with clay. There are also altitude problems just at the other side of the tunnel at the Daneway, which is 350 ft above sea level. To give you an idea, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of the engineering feat that was achieved, to get the water up to that level, there were 28 locks, and to get it down again there were another 15. It was a major engineering feat to build the canal in the first place, and it would be a major engineering feat to restore it to its former glory now.

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Having said that, if the Government were to give sufficient lead—this is why it is important that the hon. Member for Stroud has secured this debate tonight—the huge amount of voluntary work that has already taken place in my section of the canal could be completed. I went one Sunday afternoon to see 100 volunteers working on the lock gate by the western spine road. That is an example of the enormous amount of voluntary work that is being done for a project that many people would like to see completed.

I am sure that the Minister will not be able to give precise pointers about where the funding might come from, but if he were to give a steer that the restoration was something that the Government would like to see happen, the huge number of volunteers and local people involved in the project would be able to combine their energies to ensure that the project was completed.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I thank all those people whom the hon. Member for Stroud has thanked, especially the Cotswold Canals Trust and its chairman, Bruce Hall. I also thank the local authorities, which are extremely supportive of the two projects.

Some landowners in my constituency have reservations about the restoration. By and large, the people who use canals are peace loving, quiet and well behaved. The canals give a great deal of opportunity for other leisure pursuits such as fishing. Some 7 million people walk by the canals each year. This is a highly commendable project. It is very environmentally friendly. It would bring great benefits to the whole of Gloucestershire, especially to tourism in this depressed time after the foot and mouth outbreak. It would be a good fillip to the Cotswolds if the Minister said something positive this evening.

7.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for his knowledgeable speech and I congratulate him on obtaining this debate. As I told him before the debate, as part of my preparations for it I have been reading extensively about the canal system, which I found absolutely fascinating. I can well understand hon. Members on both sides of the House having such an interest in it; it has enormous potential and its history is interesting. Waterway restoration has been under way since the 1950s, and more than 400 miles of derelict waterways have been restored.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud rightly said, that restoration has brought with it the benefits of revitalising rundown areas, generating new jobs and development and increasing opportunities for leisure, recreation and tourism. I want to make it clear that the Government strongly support waterway restoration, because it acts as a catalyst for social, economic and environmental regeneration. There are currently more than 100 active restoration projects, each of which will make its own contribution.

Restoration of the Cotswold canals is one of the country's leading restoration projects. It is an ambitious project, as my hon. Friend said. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) rightly stated,

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it offers the opportunity to re-establish the link between the Thames and the Severn, which would make it of national importance to the waterway system.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Will the Minister take it from me that there will be considerable support in my west Oxfordshire constituency for the reopening of the Cotswold canals? The upper Thames flows through my constituency from Lechlade in one corner towards Oxford in the other, and there is great potential to open up that waterway. Our canals are a great leisure benefit to people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said.

In his remarks, will the Minister pay some attention to the call, which has great merit, to transfer leisure and tourism responsibility for our rivers from the Environment Agency to British Waterways? The latter is well placed to take a co-ordinated approach to leisure and tourism, taking in both canals and our rivers.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, in relation to the current review of the Environment Agency—the quinquennial financial, management and policy review. It covers certain waterways where the Environment Agency currently holds the navigation rights and is considering whether they should be transferred to British Waterways. That decision has not yet been made, and it rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I can assure the House that she will take notice of the remarks that have been made and will give careful thought to the issues. Whatever the outcome, in developing the benefits of rivers and canals there are enormous merits in a closer partnership between British Waterways and the Environment Agency.

I am aware that regeneration will bring about restoration and will add impetus to the restoration schemes in the area, including the Wilts and Berks canal, which would reconnect the Thames with the Kennet and Avon canal via Swindon. The restored canals offer a possible route for water transfer from the Severn to the upper Thames, where there are significant water supply problems. The commercial possibilities of water transfer could help to fund restoration—a point made by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend asked me to give some pointers regarding the finance that would be needed to fund that major restoration project. Obviously, there will be considerable discussion, but the regional development agency is a key player. The agency has joined a partnership to examine the feasibility of restoring the canals, and is considering raising funds for a feasibility and environmental impact study. It expects there to be other contributors, but the matter is under consideration.

There is also the heritage fund, for which landfill credits could be used. There is a great deal of mineral extraction in the area and there is real potential for landfill credit funding for the restoration. There could be partnership approaches involving the local authority, voluntary bodies and other organisations. British Waterways is ready to give technical advice and support. It has raised considerable sums, through water networking

1 Nov 2001 : Column 1112

and by using canals for such things as cabling. Considerable revenue is raised from that, so it, too, offers possible funding. My hon. Friend referred to the potential of planning gain as a means of funding some of the restoration.

A range of opportunities can be examined, and the benefits are great. The British Waterways study reckoned that about 1.8 million new visitors could be attracted to the area and that they would bring with them spending power of about £8.5 million, creating about 500 new permanent jobs and more than 1,400 temporary construction jobs. That would be a significant boost for the economy of the area, as the hon. Member for Cotswold pointed out.

As an occasional canal user, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that one of the great attractions of inland waterways is the peace and quiet. The restoration would not be a threat to landowners, as the hon. Gentleman suggests; many benefits could be brought to the area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud asked me some questions about land ownership. Clearly, the best way forward is negotiation. We could take powers in relation to the construction of canals and railways, but in a restoration project of this kind it is better to proceed by negotiation. I am sure that that can be achieved.

My hon. Friend asked about the borrowing powers of British Waterways. It has the power to enter into public-private partnerships, and it has done so successfully. It also has the power to borrow according to Treasury rules, but it does not have the power to borrow on the open market at present.

I shall conclude by giving hon. Members the assurance that they seek. Although the Government do not underestimate the magnitude of the task, which may cost more than £80 million, I want to make it clear that we support the principle of such restorations.

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